Why Does the West Not Wish to Irritate the Kremlin?
Lilia Shevtsova, Senior Associate, Carnegie Moscow Center
Translated from the Russian by Dave Essel
[This is a continuation of extracts from Lilia Shevtsova’s new book “Lonely Power: Why Russia Didn't Become the West and Why She Has Difficulties With It" – about the the whys and wherefores of Russia’s foreign policies today. Part I was published on July 5th].
Why does the West not wish to irritate the Kremlin? The answer is simple: the West as a commonwealth is wary of the Kremlin’s aggressivity and vengefulness. Another no less serious reason is that influential political circles in the West believe that Russia is not be reformed so that there is no point even trying: better to look for those places where there is a “coincidence of views” with the Russian élite.
These circles do not want to put the fulfilment of their pragmatic interests at risk. They therefore do not wish to consider a long-term strategy with regards to Russia as this would demand too much time and effort of them.
The early 1990s found the West unprepared for the collapse of the USSR. Today, Western political circles, disillusioned by the policy of partnering Russia, do not not how to respond to the country that Vladimir Putin has created. Confused Western leaders have chosen pacification of the Kremlin as a course. When Russian politicians accuse the West of having “bullied Russia”, I always want to ask: “And where do you see these bullies in the West!?” Everywhere I look in the capitals of the Western countries, I can only see leaders doing all they can to ensure Russia doesn’t throw another temper tantrum.
Other forces in the West are in business with the Kremlin. Just look at the registry of lobbyists in Washington to see name after highly influential name of people representing the interests of the Russian ruling class. Think tanks that shape the opinions of experts and of the public get finance – impossible without Kremlin approval – from Russian business. This reflects what powerful groupings there are in the USA and Europe for whom warm relations with the Kremlin are an advantage. There have been more than a few cases of people from the West’s business and political élites being co-opted in informal links with Russia’s. The most striking example is that of the chairman of Nord Stream, former German Chancellor Schröder. He commutes around the world, arguing that Russia is a democratic country and saying that no one should ever criticise the Kremlin. He is always there to provide Putin with a shoulder to lean on when things get difficult. After Russia annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Schröder called on Europe “to think of Russia as it would any other country defending its security…” In a word, Schröder is doing a grand job lobbying for the Kremlin. His example has furthermore demonstrated to the Kremlin that everyone in the West has his price and that the trick is to not be shy with its offers.
On the other hand, it’s is also true that other Western politicians, in particular former Italian premier Romano Prodi and former US trade secretary Donald Evans (by the way, a close friend of President Bush) both refused offers to become lobbyists for Moscow. They valued their reputations too highly. Nevertheless, Evans, whom the Kremlin had tried to lure with an offer to become chairman of Rosneft, paused to consider this offer and in all likelihood asked for White House advice. Bush probably responded with something along the lines of “Are you short of money, Don, or have you lost your mind?” Bush may have put it differently but whatever it was he said made Evans refuse the juicy offer. Be that as it may, plenty of other Western politicians have agreed to serve the Russian élite, including a number of former premiers and even former general secretaries of NATO. This alone helps explain why many Western capitals go so easy on the Kremlin even though they don’t trust it or its denizens.
In this context I should also raise the issue of American “realists” who express a highly pragmatic approach to Russia. Their philosophy amounts to saying “We will never understand Russia. Russians will never be like us. It’s the home of autocracy and autocracy is in their genes. We should therefore respect the Kremlin’s aims as this will help us achieve ours.”
This Spring, “realists” like these came in droves to Moscow with their “heavy artillery” – former secretaries of state Kissinger, Shultz,and Baker – in the lead. Who could fail to feel the hidden hand of a conductor here. What these proponents of Realpolitik wanted was not difficult to guess: someone was going to be nominated as intermediary between Obama and Kremlin and this was a task they were more than up to, given their close ties with the Russian establishment, business circles included.
What do the Realpoliticians propose? Here are some of the ideas that they are trying to push through Washington. The US, say these people, should “respect Russia’s sovereignty, history and traditions and recognise Russian society’s right to develop along its own path”. Not a hard thing to concede! The problem is that “staying true to one’s history and traditions” means, in the Russian context, legitimising its traditional form of government. These American do-gooders thus leave it unclear how they hope to attain cooperation between states, one of which makes anti-Americanism a principle.
Another proposal of the Realpoliticians is that America should recognise that Russia has a “sphere of interests” that she can call her own, e.g.: the Ukraine is a “part of the Russian national identity”; NATO should not expand. The Realpoliticans clearly lack imagination and prefer to repeat Kremlin propaganda slogans. It would not surprise me at all if their memoranda to Obama were drafted with assistance from Moscow.
Fortunately, the Realpoliticians have not been able to monopolise the American political arena and it is still not clear if Obama will agree with their recipes. Indeed, why would a leader who has come to power under a slogan of change start by going back to old clichés
and mothballed political players?
As far as Europe goes, policies towards Russia used always to be set in Paris and Berlin, which had wagered on cooperation with the Kremlin. There thus arose an alliance of “Old Europe” and “raw materials” Russia under which Europe got energy supplies in exchange for supporting the interests of Russia’s élite. More recently, however, another group of states has emerged which includes New Europeans (Poland and the Baltic countries in the first place), Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain. This group insists that a more critical stance be taken vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Moscow, thanks to its gas wars and muscle-flexing, has provided these with convincing arguments. The economic crisis has also played its part: on the one hand it has diverted attention away from Russia but on the other it has highlighted for the West the vulnerability of Russia’s oil-based “success”. Europe has suddenly realised that “Russia needs the EC more than the EC needs Russia”. This realisation could lead to a U-turn in Europe’s Russia policy. Brussels’ decision to liberalise its energy policies and to go ahead with Nabucco will surely hit Gazprom. The establishment of the Eastern Partnership, which aims to draw 6 young independent states (including the Ukraine and Belarus) into the European orbit is more than just a rebuff to Russia’s claimed right to a “sphere of privileged influence”. It is a step towards expanding the frontiers of civilised Europe and therefore a blow against the traditional Russian state, which needs spheres of influence in order to exist.
“We will force Europe to think about how to help Russia to change,” I was told by Bronisław Geremek, one of Europe’s most respected figures who sadly died in a car accident last year. “We will help you by helping our common neighbours. Won’t the existence of a flourishing Ukraine and a flourishing Belarus help Russians to see which game plan is preferable?” Geremek is no more. But his plan is being carried out. Berlin and Paris have been obliged, reluctantly, to support Poland and Sweden’s initiative and carry out policies to draw Russia’s neighbours closer to Europe – not in order to begin a confrontation with Russia but, on the contrary, in order to bring Europe closer to Russia.
There is another potent factor in Europe which we tend to underestimate: civil society. European society is disturbed by the course Russia is taking – so say 64% of Germans. 62% of Britons, and 60% of Americans who think that the West should not stand by indifferently given what is happening within Russia. Russia is assessed negatively by 64% of Americans (28% more than in 2008). In Britain only 25% of respondents expressed a positive attitude to Russia (45% did in 2008). Germany was most critical: 74% of respondents stated they they were negatively inclined towards Russia. This last example is quite curious, since Berlin is trying to maintain friendly relations with the Kremlin. Given the mood of the German public, the country’s leaders will be obliged to show greater reserve in their relations with the Kremlin. It should not be forgotten that popular feeling in countries with elections comes first and foremost for Western leaders.
One can only conclude that Russia’s foreign policy good times are headed the same way as her energy boom before that.